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Wilson P. Graham

Rolling, Mr. Sennett: Fred Eiras (left), Scott Hartman and Elizabeth Ann Traub frolic in "Mack & Mabel."

'Mack & Mabel' renders Sennett story in song

By Anne Gelhaus

AS MUSICAL THEATER, the Palo Alto Players' production of Mack & Mabel is good entertainment. But as a vehicle to tell the story of silent-film director Mack Sennett and his starlet/lover Mabel Normand, the show leaves a lot to be desired.

The pair's working and personal relationships were full of high drama, but Michael Stewart's book concentrates too much on the former and not enough on the latter. Because Sennett (Fred Eiras) acts as the show's principal narrator, his perspective overwhelms that of Normand (Elizabeth Ann Traub), who doesn't get equal time to state her case. As a result, the blustering, bullying Sennett emerges as sympathetic, while the audience is left hanging as to the details of Normand's fate.

These omissions are due in part to Stewart's rewrite of his 1974 script to gloss over Normand's death from pneumonia and tuberculosis at age 36. Now, Normand dies off stage and then comes back for a hokey fantasy wedding sequence to close the show.

This faux happy ending is all the more frustrating since it follows a great bit of dark comedy that cleverly reveals how both Sennett's and Normand's careers hit the skids. Sennett couldn't make the transition to talkies and began losing his stable of performers, writers and directors to other studios, while Normand left both Sennett's studio and his bed for those of director William Desmond Taylor (Brian Williams), in whose company she became a notorious party girl.

In the number "Tap Your Troubles Away," Lottie (Leslie Hardy-Tamel), another former Sennett starlet, sings about dancing as a cure for life's problems; as she and her chorus girls buck and wing upstage, Taylor is shot and killed downstage by an unknown assailant. Even though Normand was absolved of Taylor's still-unsolved murder, the scandal ruined her professionally. That the audience is told instead of being shown how she falls lessens the story's impact.

Jerry Herman's songs prove more interesting overall, and the Palo Alto Players cast generally does them justice. Eiras is adept at both ballads and show tunes, while Traub handles the show-stopping "Time Heals Everything" with aplomb. Standout supporting players include Hardy-Tamel and James H. Bickel as Eddie, the studio watchman who is moved to song when Normand returns to Sennett's fold for a brief period.

Conductor Mark Hanson needs to focus more attention on his brass and string sections, particularly the soloists, who, on opening night, didn't seem to have made tuning a priority. And many cast members seem to need more rehearsal time with their body mics to avoid creating feedback.

Still, Mack & Mabel is a fun look at Hollywood's "Golden Age," but if its tarnished underbelly is going to be allowed to show, it shouldn't be glossed over but played for maximum dramatic impact.


Mack & Mabel plays Wednesday--Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm through Sept. 29 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $16­$18. (415/329-0891)

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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